Arich, elderly novelist suffers a stroke, and as she lies in the hospital, unable to hear or speak, relatives begin squabbling over her money. Soon her fourth husband, 17 years younger than she is, seems to prevail over her daughter, who retains an attorney to help regain control. Then the man scoops up his ailing wife and installs her in a lavish mansion far away. Husband and daughter both insist they have the novelist's interests at heart, but there are doubters. Finally, just as it appears that the quarrel will not be settled this side of the grave, the ancient, indomitable woman, once again exercising her legendary will, shows signs of recovering her speech.

It has all the timeworn ingredients of a million-selling potboiler by someone like, say, Taylor Caldwell, author of Captains and the Kings, Testimony of Two Men and 30 other popular romances. But in this case, life imitates kitsch. Two weeks ago Caldwell, 79, was moved into a $500,000 estate in Greenwich, Conn, by her fourth husband (of two years), Robert Prestie, 62. Meanwhile her daughter, Peggy Fried, was fighting in a New York court to have her brought back to Buffalo, the author's home since she emigrated from England at the age of 6. Caldwell, still recuperating from a stroke suffered last May, can neither hear (she has been almost totally deaf since 1967) nor speak—so far. But both Prestie and Fried are noisily claiming to speak for her.

"I don't know what Prestie is doing with my mother," Fried exclaimed to a local newspaper reporter recently, describing the mother she last saw as alternately laughing and crying, "totally helpless." Armed with supporting affidavits from old family retainers, she charges that her mother has been moved to Greenwich against her will and that, until the court intervened, Prestie would not allow her to visit her mother in the hospital. Now, says Peggy's husband, Gerald Fried, "My wife doesn't sleep at night. She worries about whether her mother is being cared for properly."

Prestie, supported by Caldwell's physician among others, insists that the move to Connecticut was her idea, not his. Caldwell's lawyer, Arnold Weiss, who is also representing Prestie, says that when asked in the hospital if she would like to see her daughter, "Taylor shook her head three times negatively." Prestie suggests that some dark, deep-rooted animosity separates mother and daughter. Before her recent stroke, he says, "She told me, 'Call Peggy and tell her I don't want to see her. There are things I could tell you about Peggy that would curl your hair.' "

The truth probably compromises both viewpoints. Caldwell's success as a writer—she's collected royalties on more than 30 million sales to date—is far clearer than her record as a mother. "Children are not as important as the man in your life," she told PEOPLE four years ago, adding: "I don't believe that they should be allowed to eat with their parents until they are 21." Last September her only other child, Judith Goodman, committed suicide at the age of 47. Judith's death followed a five-year court battle between her and her mother over the $1.2 million estate of Judith's late father, Marcus Reback, Caldwell's second husband. Eight days after Judith shot herself, Caldwell kept her plans to leave Buffalo for a six-week tour of Europe and the Middle East. Her relationship with Peggy, 60, also reportedly left much to be desired. "Taylor says that parents love their children, but their children do not really love their parents," explains Prestie. "She was terribly abused by her own parents. All her life she's been told she's ugly."

That, Prestie says, is why he's particularly stung by charges that he has mistreated Caldwell, verbally and physically—charges emanating from a servant at the Buffalo residence whom he reportedly discharged not long ago. Caldwell herself seems to have been amused by his occasional displays of temper, writing to a Buffalo newspaper nearly two years ago that since marriage Prestie had become "just as illogical, unreasonable, stingy, tightfisted, yelling, door-slamming, arbitrary, laying-down-the-law as other men—in short, a HUSBAND."

They met in 1977 in Palm Springs, Calif., where he was in the employ of another wealthy old woman, Rosalie Hearst, the seventh wife of George Randolph Hearst, a son of the late newspaper czar. "I've never known him to be anything but an honest person," says Rosalie, who made Prestie an agent in her company, Cosmopolitan Realty, and appointed him executive director of the George Randolph Hearst Memorial Foundation for Diabetic Education. "He's not money-hungry," notes Rosalie, who encouraged the relationship with Taylor. "I think both of them have been very good for each other."

Prestie, born in Saskatchewan, admits to a checkered résumé: He studied for the priesthood in a Trappist monastery, worked as a TV producer-director in London and toured the U.S. at one point lecturing on "the betterment of mankind." A 12-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1973 produced his only son, now 17, who lives with them in Greenwich. Prestie says that he felt a "complete rapport" with Caldwell from their first meeting. "She's a very spiritual person, and I am also spiritually oriented," he explains. Immediately after their marriage he set up a Taylor Caldwell Memorial Foundation, and is one of its three trustees. He also boasts "a signed document" entitling him to be her only authorized biographer—and has full power of attorney should she become totally incapacitated. Elaborating on why he married Caldwell, who just before her stroke signed deals on her next two books for $3.9 million, Prestie says: "She is so humble: a mind like a computer, and yet a child." Despite her penchant for writing through the night, he set up a study for her next to their bedroom in Greenwich. "Her typing," he says, "is music to my ears."

Caldwell is slowly learning to compensate for the effects of the stroke; therapists are trying to teach her to write with her left hand and, according to Prestie, "We've even been able to coax a few words out of her." For now, a supreme court judge in Buffalo has named attorney Thomas Cleary to administer her holdings in New York State. Peggy Fried is still trying to have a conservator appointed to take control of the rest of Caldwell's assets. Prestie insists that he is interested in Taylor Caldwell for love, not money—and that he hopes she will soon be able to speak her own mind. "I am no dummy that just came out of the woodwork," he says. "I am not a gigolo."